Next week, in a courtroom in the Shetland capital of Lerwick, the Steward of the tiny island of Forvik will challenge British authority in a case reminiscent of the fictional Duchy of Grand Fenwick. Having recently declared its independence, not quite three years after it declared its direct dependence on the Crown, the Steward (appropriately named Stuart) is set to defy the UK’s claim of sovereignty over Forvik and the Shetlands. The case heralds a notable departure from previous UK policy, which seemed to be that of ignoring the problem in the hope that it’d go away, and the outcome has far-reaching potential.
Aside from the massive economic implications for the lucrative petroleum industry and fisheries in this territory, the Forvik case raises serious (if somewhat bizarre) questions about the authority of governments over individuals who follow their conscience and communities who assert their right to self-determination. Even if you conclude that Stuart the Steward and his diaspora of Forvegians are a bunch of loonies, there is no denying that the status of the Shetlands (of which Forvik is or was a part) is rather ambiguous. There is considerable historical (and therefore legal) precedent for the existence of such a microstate.
The Forvik dispute, however, isn’t just about national sovereignty. It’s also about individual liberty, property rights, and the due process of law. In 2009, police seized and destroyed Stuart’s Forvegian-registered Land Rover. No charges were laid, and Stuart had no opportunity to say a single word in his defence in a court of law. On June 15 of this year, the first Forvegian ‘consular vehicle’ was impounded. Once again, Stuart had no recourse to law. When he asked what charges were being laid against him, the police informed him that a decision as to what Stuart would be charged with, if anything, would be made by the Procurator Fiscal within 6-8 weeks, even though the vehicle could be destroyed after 14 days. Finally, on July 4, the second ‘consular vehicle’ was also impounded. This time, Stuart claims he was dragged from his vehicle by the police, handcuffed although he did not resist arrest, and then placed in a cell for five hours. After being fingerprinted, DNA-tested, and photographed, Stuart was released on the basis of an undertaking to appear in court on July 27. He will, after losing three vehicles, finally have some sort of recourse to law.
I don’t envy the judge who will preside over the court. Although technically about vehicle registration, the case will inevitably touch upon Stuart’s inability to apply for UK documentation while believing, in good conscience, that the Shetlands are not subject to UK law. However illegitimate the judge may deem Stuart’s failure to register his vehicles in the UK, there is little doubt as to Stuart’s sincere belief that his vehicles were registered in the proper manner. Right or not, the judge will risk being seen as a bully. Any punishment could be perceived as overkill. Furthermore, it cannot be disputed that the vehicles were registered and would have been easily traced (as per the original intent of the 1903 Motor Car Act) as they bore unique registration plates and both ‘consular vehicles’ were marked somewhat flamboyantly as such. It is rather that the vehicles were registered in a place that the UK claims does not exist as a legal entity, and this raises a number of thorny questions that the judge may have to answer in order to hold Stuart accountable in court, all of which come back to the issue of recognising Forvik as a sovereign state.
So, does Forvik actually exist? Geographically, Forvik comprises Forewick Holm, a 2.5 acre island, (the ownership of which is another matter of dispute), situated on the west side of the Shetlands. It is closer to Norway than mainland Scotland. Historically, this tiny isle has fallen under the rule of both Norwegian and Scottish monarchs. Its alleged sovereignty rests on the claim that the Shetlands have never been part of Scotland, that the 1707 Act of Union not only did not apply to the Shetlands but could not apply as it had “immediate dependence” on the Crown “for all time coming” according to the 1669 Act of Annexation. It is a claim that even the Queen has avoided denying. Indeed, in her correspondence with Stuart the Steward, she has merely stated that, as a constitutional monarch, she is “precluded” from intervening. Indeed, it seems that the authorities are very reluctant to cross swords with Forvik’s Steward. Stuart has failed to pay income tax, VAT, and council tax. He has built a house on Forewick Holm without planning permission and placed vehicles with Forvegian registration and tax discs on the roads of Shetland. The clearest statement of the UK’s position has been a declaration by the Justice Department that “[u]nder the UK constitution Forvik is part of the Shetland Islands, which is subject to UK legislation”, which (given that Stuart is arguing that under the UK constitution the Shetlands are not part of Scotland or the UK) is less than helpful. Nevertheless, this does constitute recognition of Forvik as an entity (as there is no such geographical location), and as it was made the day before its declaration of dependence, it does somewhat perversely bolster its legitimacy.
The question Stuart the Steward keeps asking is “When did Shetland become part of Scotland?” In the absence of a definitive answer, one must ask whether the preservation of the status quo is sufficient justification to avoid giving the matter serious and public consideration. If the Shetlands are historically a crown dependency, as Stuart the Steward contends, with more legitimacy as such than the Isle of Man, then all Shetlanders have a right to know this, even if they ultimately choose to remain part of the UK. International law experts seem uncommonly reluctant to comment on the situation, and the historical evidence at the very least warrants an investigation into the Forvegian claim. Ultimately, the future of Forvik as a sovereign state may well depend on how a judge in the Shetland town of Lerwick handles a seemingly petty case about vehicle registration.
Visit the Sovereign State of Forvik’s official website: